From tragedy to joy on the commons: culture change through democratic ownership

Democratic ownership doesn't just make society fairer, it brings out the best in all of us.

Elena Blackmore
19 August 2014
game theory.jpg

People nehave differently when presented with the "prisoner's dylemma" depending on the context

Human beings show a broad spectrum of qualities, but it is the worst of these that are usually emphasised, and the result, too often, is to dishearten us, diminish our spirit.” – Howard Zinni

We produce things we don’t need from materials we can’t replenish that are destroying the natural resources that we do need. We are persuaded to buy these things by people we don’t trust, with money we earn through overwork that we are underpaid for, and borrowed from banks that undermine public infrastructure by avoiding their tax bills, to make impressions that won’t last on people we don’t like.ii The people we do like, and the things we enjoy doing, have likewise been co-opted by the market, portioned, packaged and priced: exercise (indoors) for £30 a month; a harmonious family (via fried chicken in a bucket) for £15; increasingly expensive technologies for facilitating any human interaction or outdoor experience.

Which is strange, because we don’t like destroying the planet, we wish society was less materialistic, and we know that money can’t buy us love.

This paradox can be at least partially explained by the psychology of identity. We often think of ourselves as fairly consistent beings. We describe ourselves in binaries – “He’s a generous person”; “I know I’m selfish”; “We’re not fussy” – when actually we’re pretty much everything, sometimes. What’s going on around us, what’s encouraged in the current moment, brings forth particular elements of our identity. As Louis C.K. so excellently describes, just as we are responsible and compassionate people outside of our cars; behind the wheel we are impatient, unsympathetic and enraged when mere minutes are added to our commute. We’re parents, football fans, children, shoppers, employers, friends; we respond differently when we’re reminded of these different aspects of our identity. For instance, experimental research shows that we become more materialistic when we think of ourselves as consumers than when we think of ourselves as citizens. Thinking about luxury consumer goods makes us more concerned with short-term self-interest, less willing to participate in civic action, and less environmentally-concerned. In other words – being a consumer makes us less of a citizen.

This can be extended outwards to encompass much of our ‘market’ identity. If we play a Prisoners’ Dilemma game called the ‘Wall Street Game’ we are significantly more likely to act competitively and betray the other players than if we play an identical game called the ‘Community Game’.iii Participating in a market scenario also increases the likelihood that we will allow a mouse to die.

With hindsight, Thatcher wasn’t overselling when she described her objective as wishing to change the ‘heart and soul of the nation’ through economic policy.iv Privatisation is not merely a technical question of ownership, but a psychological question of values and identity. The ideological campaign to demolish public infrastructure is reflected in the erosion of our civic nature. Its most insidious effect is to nurture the values of the free-market within our psyche, which we apply far beyond their original remit. We are now consumer parents, consumer football fans, consumer kids, consumer friends.

Cross-cultural research shows that citizens of countries with more deregulated markets tend to put a higher priority on Schwartz’s power values than citizens of more regulated economies.v These values are associated with money-orientation, narcissism, Machiavellianism, prejudice towards other groups and lower levels of empathy at an individual level; at country-level we see higher advertising spends, higher ecological footprints, lower child wellbeing, lower levels of parental And these values are reflected in our structures and institutions.

It is our everyday experience of these institutions and structures that shapes us, bringing particular identities to the fore and strengthening our conviction in particular values. The daily experience of war rendered prior social structures untenable and, through the levelling of resources and work, promoted the values of equality and social justice that the welfare state emerged from. Our daily experience of consumer capitalism is promoting individualism and greed, focusing our attention on money, status and nationalism.

The organisations we interact with on a daily basis – particularly those we work for – therefore hold real power in shaping our culture. David Erdal, author of Beyond the Corporation: Humanity Working, describes a key difference between employee-owned and shareholder-run companies:

[In 2012] the John Lewis Partnership and Marks and Spencer were about the same size: sales of £9.5bn and £10bn respectively. John Lewis employs slightly more people – employee owned companies generally do – 84,000 vs. 81,000. From their profits, John Lewis distributed £210m in cash, M&S £268m. The cash from John Lewis went to the partners (employees) as a percent of salary – the same percent of salary for everyone, regardless of position. In other words it went to ordinary families, and was spent in ordinary ways, making life a bit better for 84,000 families. The story in M&S was very very different. A few of the top people got a lot. The rest of the employees got little or nothing. Almost all the cash was sent up to the ‘financial institutions’ in the City of London. 

But extending the reach of democracy to the organisations we interact with and work for – through ownership structures and decision-making processes – has significant cultural impacts beyond the material benefits afforded to more people.

Whether in private or public ownership, higher degrees of hierarchy and inequality tend to foster damaging attitudes and behaviours. For instance, hierarchy requires people to constantly appear competent, superior and independent – the qualities that get people promoted further up the ladder. But the need to appear such has a particularly damning effect. The more hierarchical an organisation, the less likely people are to seek help: an issue at the root of countless organisational failures. This is particularly true of both lower-status employees and of people in leadership positions.vii

Power – both the experience of being in a top position and the value placed on wealth and status – has the corrupting effect suggested by the adage. People in positions of power tend to show much lower levels of empathy and are more likely to put short-term profit over longer-term societal impacts.viii They’re more likely to lie in negotiations and endorse unethical behaviour at work.ix And people who value power are less likely to be concerned with the wellbeing of others or the environment, instead objectifying those of different social standing. Competitive, hierarchical organisations – highly associated with valuing power – also breed ‘internal politics’, conflict, resentment and discontent among staff.x

Returning to Louis C.K., drivers of higher status cars are more likely to drive aggressively: less likely to stop at zebra crossings and more likely to cut up other drivers. People with more wealth or status in experiments (either in real life or manipulated for experimental purposes) are more likely to cheat and steal than their less powerful counterparts (including stealing sweets from children in an experiment!).xi

In one experiment, people played a forest management game where they could choose how much of the forest to log and sell each ‘year’ (resource management games are a popular way of testing how concerned people are with the welfare of a wider social group). The higher the power-type value priorities of a group, the less likely they were to have any forest left at all by the end of the 25 ‘years’ (rounds of the game).xii

This clearly isn’t something that is left at the office door at the end of the day: it spills out into the rest of society. These are values and actions that are carried out of the office, into our cars, back home, to how we treat our children, our neighbours, and our environment.

In another version of this type of game, designed to see how people would respond to the needs of future generations, approximately a quarter of groups had something to pass on to the next generation (if this seems small, it’s worth noting that the resource depletion is usually because of a selfish minority rather than a selfish majority). In the fourth generation, nothing was left. But, rather wonderfully, when a democratic process was introduced into the mix, every single resource pool was sustained until the fourth generation.xiii

Greater participation through democratic processes isn’t just about silencing the selfish minority: the process is important in itself.xiv In a four-way prisoners’ dilemma game working in the group interest increases from 12% to 78% when groups can talk versus when they are anonymous.xv It’s pretty clear that having a greater sense of connection to your colleagues through shared ownership; being involved in decision-making; and reducing pay inequalities can foster the values of equality, community and autonomy.

These values aren’t just associated with greater social concern and environmental action: research suggests that autonomy values in particular promote acceptance of uncertainty, openness to risk-taking and failure, creativity, and experimentation:xvi exactly the attitudes that we’re going to need to be resilient in the face of an uncertain climate and unpredictable economies.

What these examples make clear is that details of the process and experience of democratic ownership is crucial in fostering these values, however. Public ownership has often become entrenched in hierarchy and bureaucracy; democratic or participatory processes without ownership are more vulnerable to changes in leadership or economic climate. But there is potential in the many spaces between these.

Workplaces tend to mirror wider culture – higher levels of individualism or money-orientation in citizens is (unsurprisingly) taken into the workplace and reproduced there.xvii But the relationship goes both ways. Cultural change can spread outwards from workplace practice. As Michael Sandel says;

“Altruism, generosity, solidarity, and civic spirit are not like commodities that are depleted with use. They are more like muscles that develop and grow stronger with exercise.”xviii

More public control of resources can foster such values. We can rebuild our civic identity and reclaim our psyche from the values of privatisation. The case for democratic ownership of resources and services lies not only in its material impacts. The real strength is in its potential to act as a catalyst for the transformation to a more compassionate and environmentally-conscious society.


This article is part of the Modernise: de-privatise series.


i Zinn, H. (2010). You can't be neutral on a moving train: A personal history of our times. Beacon Press.

ii This is both a paraphrasing and extension of two quotes: i) from the film Fight Club and ii) Tim Jackson in his 2010 TED talk, available at

iii Liberman, V., Samuels, S. M., & Ross, L. (2004). The name of the game: Predictive power of reputations versus situational labels in determining prisoner’s dilemma game moves. Personality and social psychology bulletin,30(9), 1175-1185.

iv Margaret Thatcher in the Times, 1981. Quoted in Crompton, T, 2010. Common cause: The case for working with our cultural values. Available at:

v Schwartz, S. H. (2007). Cultural and individual value correlates of capitalism: A comparative analysis. Psychological Inquiry18(1), 52-57.

vi Kasser, T. (2011). Cultural values and the well-being of future generations: A cross-national study. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology42(2), 206-215.

vii Lee, F. (1997). When the going gets tough, do the tough ask for help? Help seeking and power motivation in organizations. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 72(3), 336-363.

viii Reiter-Palmon, R., M. D. Mumford and K. V. Threlfall: 1998, ‘Solving Everyday Problems Creatively: The Role of Problem Construction and Personality Type’, Creativity Research Journal 11, 187–197.

ix Piff, P. K., Kraus, M. W., Côté, S., Cheng, B. H., & Keltner, D. (2010). Having less, giving more: the influence of social class on prosocial behavior. Journal of personality and social psychology99(5), 771; Côté, S., Piff, P. K., & Willer, R. (2013). For whom do the ends justify the means? Social class and utilitarian moral judgment. Journal of personality and social psychology104(3), 490.

x Ferris, G.R., Zinko, R., Brouer, R.L., Buckley, M.R, & Harvey, M.G. (2007). Strategic bullying as a supplementary, balanced perspective on destructive leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, 18, 195-206; Ros, M., Schwartz, S., & Surkiss, S. (2007). Basic individual values, work values, and the meaning of work. Applied psychology, 48(187), 49–71; Schwartz, S. H. (1999). A Theory of Cultural Values and Some Implications for Work. Applied Psychology, 48(1), 23–47.

xi Piff, P. K., Kraus, M. W., Côté, S., Cheng, B. H., & Keltner, D. (2010). Having less, giving more: the influence of social class on prosocial behavior. Journal of personality and social psychology99(5), 771

xii Sheldon, K. M., & McGregor, H. A. (2000). Extrinsic value orientation and “The tragedy of the commons”. Journal of personality68(2), 383-411.

xiii Hauser, O. P., Rand, D. G., Peysakhovich, A., & Nowak, M. A. (2014). Cooperating with the future. Nature.

xiv Frey, B. S., Kucher, M., & Stutzer, A. (2001). Outcome, process and power in direct democracy–new econometric results. Public Choice107(3-4), 271-293.

xv Frey, B. S., & Bohnet, I. (1995). Institutions affect fairness: Experimental investigations. Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics (JITE)/Zeitschrift für die gesamte Staatswissenschaft, 286-303.

xvi Calogero, R. M., Bardi, A., & Sutton, R. M. (2009). A need basis for values: Associations between the need for cognitive closure and value priorities.Personality and Individual Differences46(2), 154-159; See also Barrington-Bush, L, 2013. Anarchists in the Boardroom. For more discussion of how autonomy interacts with acceptance of complexity.

xvii Sagiv, L., & Schwartz, S. H. (2007). Cultural values in organisations: insights for Europe. European Journal of International Management1(3), 176-190.

xviii Sandel, M. J. (2012). What money can't buy: the moral limits of markets. Macmillan.

This article is part of the Modernise: de-privatise series.

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